I feel sure that, when I was a practicing minister of the Christian Church, I must have preached on the particular text on several occasions.
The text in question appears in three of the four New Testament Gospels. It is the story of a woman of obvious substance who gives Jesus some expensive ointment. He makes personal use of the ointment. His disciples protest and consider that the ointment should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. Jesus disagrees and utters those rather enigmatic words:
“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
Apart from seemingly undermining the later belief of the Christian Church that Jesus will remain within the world or, more precisely, remain constantly with his followers, Jesus’ words inevitably seem to signify that poverty will be an ongoing condition of a significant proportion of humanity. Indeed, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and despite a confusion between “poor in spirit” and the “economically and socially poor”, poverty is close to being a virtue. This complicates matters for the Christian Church.
The current leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest branch of the Christian Church, Pope Francis 1, has seemingly made poverty a primary focus of his papacy (I say “seemingly” for Francis has, so far, done nothing to alter the Roman Catholic dogma that is a major cause of poverty in those countries dominated by that church).
The United Kingdom is a modern welfare state. One of the foundational documents of this welfare state is the Beveridge Report. This report does not use the term “poverty”; instead it speaks of “want”. This term has less value-baggage. So too, it needs to be kept in mind that when we talk of poverty in the UK we are not talking about the same kind of poverty that is to be seen in the developing world – the so-called two-thirds world.
The definition of poverty generally used in the UK, as in the rest of the developed world, is set at 605 of the median income. Naturally, 60% of median income in the UK is much greater than that of people living in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa. That might be one reason why many in the UK do not believe that an estimated 13 million UK citizens actually live in poverty.
The 1942 Beveridge Report on “Social Insurance and Allied Services” defined want as the lack of “what is necessary for subsistence”. This seems a much stricter criterion than the one which defines poverty in the modern British society and is one that might well meet with approval amongst large sections of the British population. So too, it could be seen to lead to the view that in today’s UK “no one actually starves”. Surely this is a situation to be encouraged, even one with which Jesus might have agreed?
Notwithstanding, when Jesus is recorded as having said those words, “the poor you will always have with you”, he was not, if my interpretation of his words are correct, dismissing poverty as if it was unimportant. He was saying something completely different. He was identifying the specific need of companionship with, if not the championing of, the poor. These, as the context makes plain, are the economically poor. In the protest of his disciples he perhaps saw a hard-heartedness that masqueraded as sympathy for the poor.
In a similar way, there is the argument that, in contemporary British society, there is a hard-heartedness that wishes to cloak itself in the rationale that “no one actually starves”. In this way it can ignore the fact that inequality in the UK is actually rising. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently pointed out that that British public expects levels of poverty to get worse, while at the same time “support for welfare spending… is at a historical low”. People don’t believe in their poverty.
Some of this state of affairs may reside in the fact that people are confused by, or disagree with the word, “poverty”.
For that reason, amongst others, it may be that the most appropriate term to use is “inequality”. When people lose their jobs or are forced into low paid work, with zero-hours or income supplements; when food banks are resorted to; when government cuts to welfare are made but the wealthy are left relatively unscathed; when prices of food, power, transport and housing continue to rise but wages are frozen, many people are placed in a position that is increasingly unequal to that of more fortunate others.
When these situations are manipulated by a government, that is, when inequality is the policy or the consequence of the political and economic arrangements of those who are elected to look after the welfare of all British citizens, then it is time for the people of the UK to raise their collective voice in protest.
Not the protest of the type made by the disciples of Jesus, merely sympathetic but having no personal investment; but with the protest of Jesus who, in saying that “the poor you will always have with you” is actually identifying with the poor, indicating an empathy that shows that he will remain on the side of those in poverty.
In using expensive ointment for his personal use, Jesus expresses the view that a genuine gospel of the poor means placing, not only expensive items, but oneself personally at the service of those who, socially, economically, politically and personally, are left alienated and discriminated against.
This was the week in which nursing staff in British hospitals, including for the first time maternity nurses (midwives), expressed their anger and anxiety at the austerity measures affecting the British NHS by going on strike.
The particular focus on the nurses’ action was the fact that a substantial number of nurses in the UK would not be getting any form of pay rise. Some would get a less than inflation 1% rise, but those still on (contractual) incremental pay increases would get nothing – their increment being regarded as, amongst other things, a cost of living increase. The matter is further understood when it is remembered that this has been the situation for the past several years. The nurses have had enough of the swingeing governmental cuts.
Of course, the government justifies its position by saying that, in a time of austerity, these cuts to take home pay must be expected and, when all is said and done, the whole of British society, especially those “hard working families”, is facing the same cuts. With this goes the by now infamous words, “we are all in this together”.
Oh, except those on higher incomes who are to have a tax break. At the same time, we are informed from the research of the Income Data Services that the earnings of the FTSE 100 company directors have surged by more than a fifth over the past year. Their annual average total earnings were 2.4 million, rising to 3.3 million for chief executives.
Wage growth for the overall workforce, meanwhile, trails well behind inflation, rising to 0.6% in the three months to July compared with the same period a year earlier. This is less than half the present rate of inflation of 1.5% (a rate higher than the increase of 1% that some, but not all, nurses will be getting – see above).
The research by the Income Data Service found that between 2000 and 2014 the median total earnings for FTSE chief executives surged by 278%, while the corresponding rise in total earnings for full-time employees was 48%. This means that a FTSE 100 chief executive earned 120 times more than a full-time employee in the past financial year, while in 2000, it was 47 times more.
These figures prompted Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, to say: “Now we know who is benefitting from the recovery, and as sure as anything it is not the great majority of workers who continue to face cuts in their living standards. Every year people ask if soaring boardroom greed can continue. It seems that it can.”
It seems true, therefore, that the rich get richer whilst everybody else, including the poor, gets even poorer. Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you”. The fact is that this will continue to be the situation whilst we always have the rich, even the super-rich, with us.